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Report 25: To be continued

The next leg of the trip home lands me at Incheon Airport, just outside of Seoul Korea, a country I’ve never been to and know nothing about, tourist-wise. I push through the airport to get a map, get advice for a town destination, check half of my carry-on luggage and get some cash. I’m sent on the bus because it requires no transfers and overland will allow me to see more.

Although I’ve been traveling for an hour by bus, I’m a bit stunned to be left on the sidewalk, the bus pulling away. I feel at very loose ends, with no idea what I really want to do here. Suddenly I feel like I’m in the most foreign place I’ve ever been in with absolutely no preparation. I also feel the 4 hours of sleep I didn’t get the night before and the heat of the day opening up. Well, ok then. I’ll just plant myself for a few minutes, holding my map and looking at the return bus stop across the street, writing down the names of landmarks, including a small, culturally appropriate Starbucks.

I got a little sense of how these busses work waiting for the one that took me into town. I decide a good place to start would be to take a good look at the return stop and see if it tells me when the bus goes back. But how do I cross this street I’m on? Nobody is just meandering out into traffic—my experience of the Asian norm. It occurs to me that somewhere beneath me there is a train station and that there are probably underground tunnels that are used for safe crossing. I find myself a stairway down and explore a bit.

People must be busy working—I see few folks for a city of millions on a weekday, and none of them look approachable language-wise. But I think I’m right that this will take me across the street. I check out the subway part, another level down, and decide that it’s smart to return to the airport the way I left. I have a short time, shortened further by a steep drop in energy for this adventure. I’d say figuring out how to have some fun and some lunch in this neighborhood is probably enough.

I write down some bus time options and head down to Insadong, the mostly-pedestrian old interesting touristy street. It’s lovely and just my speed for this adventure. The tourist info guy suggests a lunch place, when I claim to like local food and admit my comfort with “veggy.” The buildings are old and charming but this isn’t just a western tourist center. Local folks are streaming out for business lunches, local ladies have gathered for days out together and there are lots of galleries and shops to distract.

I overshoot—streets are small and packed—and I have to come back around to my lunch spot. Another helpful tourist patrol person helps me by writing out the name of the place I’m looking for in Korean. That was a nice idea, but practically speaking, it doesn’t help me recognize it. However when I show other restaurateurs the name, they redirect me. Honestly, if any of them had been a little more enterprising towards me, I would have been happy to stay at their establishment. The first wrong place I went into definitely made some killer dumplings. But I’m first sent and then delivered to a little place where we take off our shoes and sit on the floor. I’m the only westerner. There are gatherings of business men and business women. The menu is on the wall and I gesture my inability to read anything. My waitress starts to point at things and say words, and I recognize a phrase that sounds something like what I remember tourist info man saying. I nod vigorously. Food will come. Gen De Re.

In fact a prodigious amount of food comes, many types in little handmade ceramic dishes. There are two sauces—a fishy spicy one and a garlicky soy sauce one. Lots of small dishes of various veggies (pickled, boiled or lightly steamed,) a bowl of rice with sesame seeds and seaweed in it, a bowl of rich miso-based soup with tofu in a hot clay pot, and a cold tofu item. I’m given quick instruction and then later, when I still haven’t caught on adequately, a little more detailed coaching. Lots of assembly required.

The three women next to me are almost done with their lunch and are having a great time catching up. Each speaks animatedly in turn. It seems obvious that they are friends—not workmates—and that they don’t get together as often as they’d like. They leave before me, paying, finding shoes and bidding their goodbyes, when the one says “to be continued” –the only English I’ve heard in the place–to laughter.

Exactly right. Either I’m done taking in new material and this trip and the wonders of travel will need to be continued some other time or the trip’s done, even though I’m game for more. But either way, I buy myself a new sunhat for the Portland summer I’ll be flying into, find myself a Jewish/Korean Danish that will fill the pre-dinner gap and head back for a 45 minute nap on the bus. I’m leaving many adventures untouched, but I’m not leaving adventuring.